April 9, 2017
He Came in to a Good Friday World
When they were approaching Jerusalem, at Bethphage and Bethany, near the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples and said to them, “Go into the village ahead of you, and immediately as you enter it, you will find tied there a colt that has never been ridden; untie it and bring it. If anyone says to you, ‘Why are you doing this?’ just say this, ‘The Lord needs it and will send it back here immediately.’” They went away and found a colt tied near a door, outside in the street. As they were untying it, some of the bystanders said to them, “What are you doing, untying the colt?” They told them what Jesus had said; and they allowed them to take it. Then they brought the colt to Jesus and threw their cloaks on it; and he sat on it. Many people spread their cloaks on the road, and others spread leafy branches that they had cut in the fields. Then those who went ahead and those who followed were shouting,
Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord!
Blessed is the coming kingdom of our ancestor David!
Hosanna in the highest heaven!”
Then he entered Jerusalem and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.
Introduction to the second text:
Our second reading comes from the Old Testament, from the book of the prophet Isaiah, and it helps sets the stage for us to understand the power of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem… and the longing and hope of the people who welcomed him there. We’ll return to Jesus’ entrance, but first let’s reach back several hundred years before.
The verses we’re about to hear come from a section of Isaiah known as the “Songs of the Suffering Servant,” at a time of great pain and distress. The nation of Israel had been taken over by Babylon, Jerusalem had been destroyed, and most of the people sent into Exile. They had given up on seeing a mighty king return to the throne of David. Instead, the prophet Isaiah gives a new promise: that God will send not a mighty king but a suffering servant to establish justice – and not only for Israel but for all people.
Between the time of Isaiah and the time of Jesus, the people did return to Israel, Jerusalem was rebuilt, and there was even a new Temple. But the country was never the same. After the Babylonians, Persia ruled the region, then the Greeks. At the time of Jesus, it was Romans occupiers who held power over Israel. The Jewish people had their country back but never independence. They had kings, but only puppets of the ruling power. They had a Temple, but even the religious leaders feared Rome.
It was that world into which Jesus came…
Later, after Christ’s resurrection, early Christians began to read the Songs of the Suffering Servant with new eyes… and saw the Suffering Servant as Jesus himself.
Listen for the Word of God:
Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a dimly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be crushed
until he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his teaching.
Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people upon it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness,
I have taken you by the hand and kept you;
I have given you as a covenant to the people,
a light to the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord, that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to idols.
See, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth,
I tell you of them.
* * * * *
I sometimes find it hard to understand why Jesus rode into Jerusalem that day. The city was a tinderbox. Jesus must have known what was coming; the Gospels tell us he knew full well what would happen. What he did roused so many emotions in people: hope, excitement, longing… anger and hostility, fear and confusion…
It was the Passover, when Jews poured into Jerusalem, pilgrims from all over the countryside, and even from diaspora around the Roman Empire. Passover was their celebration of God freeing them from slavery in Egypt centuries before, their remembrance of liberation from oppression under Pharaoh’s rule. That they yearned for freedom once again was lost on no one, least of all the Roman governors.
On every major Jewish holiday the Roman governor moved his entourage to Jerusalem from his palace on the sea, bringing hosts of military personnel along with him. Passover was particularly problematic – it had a patriotic flavor that was especially potent, and the city was likely to blow up with nationalist fervor.
In their book The Last Week, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan paint a picture of the Passover procession of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor at the time of Jesus:
A visual panoply of imperial power: Cavalry on horses, foot soldiers, leather armor, helmets, weapons, harnesses, golden eagles mounted on poles, sun glinting on metal and gold. Sounds: the marching of feet, the creaking of leather, the clinking of bridles, the beating of drums.
And on the opposite side of the city came Jesus, riding
a donkey down the Mount of Olives, cheered by his followers. Jesus was from the peasant village of Nazareth, his message was about the kingdom of God, and his followers came from the peasant class. They had journeyed to Jerusalem from Galilee, about a hundred miles to the north.
“Jesus procession,” they write, “proclaimed the kingdom of God; Pilates’ proclaimed the power of empire. The two processions embody the central conflict of the week that led to Jesus’ crucifixion.” [i]
What Jesus did that day was both provocative and enigmatic. It was provocative to ride in like he did, acting out precisely the prophecy from Zechariah, “See, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey,” inviting people to think of him as their new king. But he was an enigma, too. He didn’t come enticing revolutionary fervor. He didn’t come flaunting power or threatening violence. All he did was come into the city, go to the Temple, look around, and leave. The next day he would go to the Temple again – not to rally the faithful or build alliances with Jewish leaders, but to drive out the money changes and alienate everyone who had religious, political, or economic power.
If we do not understand this, the crucifixion makes no sense. If we don’t see the provocations, then Jesus is merely a passive victim of cruel, cold-hearted people, evil Jewish leaders or idiotic, cow-like crowds whose whims change from one day to the next. But it wasn’t like that. Jesus was nothing like people had imagined. He wasn’t the savior they were expecting. And he wouldn’t curry favor with anyone
Jesus knew exactly what he was doing. And he knew what would be done to him. Which is not at all to say he had it coming. But it raises the question:
Why did he do it
John Buchanan puts it this way:
Looming over the drama of Palm Sunday is the shadow of a cross and the critical issue of why, in the name of God, would Jesus do what he did. Why would God, who we believe is present, incarnate, in the life of Jesus, why would God become so involved in such a messy, political, potentially violent event, an event of human pain and suffering and death?[ii]
Because, Buchanan says, “We are Easter people, we Christians are, but we live in a Good Friday world.”[iii]
Jesus came into exactly that world, not as a new and almighty king, not to overthrow governments or consolidate power, but to challenge it, question it, with a vision of God’s kingdom. And to love it, to bring God’s presence right into the heart of it all.
He came to a city rife with confusion, not to give easy answers but to upend simplistic, easy answers and expectations;
He went to a Temple stained with corruption, not to heap shame but to reveal the reality of what it had become;
He shared at a table with his followers, including his own betrayer, not to carry out a ritual but to give those he loved a way to share in his life;
He prayed in a garden, not because he was pious but because he was human and knew the agony of abandonment;
He faced authorities quick to condemn him, not because he was submitting to their power, but in obedience to God;
He pitied the crowds who turned against him, not with disdain, but compassion;
He died on a cross, not a victim, but as one who offered new life through his own death.
It was only after the resurrection that some began to understand. This was “something tragic,” Buchanan says, “but way beyond tragedy, something terrible and awesome and beautiful beyond description.”
If we only see Palm Sunday as a parade, as a joyful celebration that’s a dress rehearsal for Easter Sunday, we have missed Jesus’ work in this world. Christ entered our Good Friday world, this world, this world where every headline and heartache screams out Good Friday. And if the story ended there, it would be a tragedy; another victim dying at the hands of cold-hearted despots, one of many soon forgotten when the next day’s victims take their place.
But by the tender-hearted mercies of our God, our Savior entered this Good Friday world, this world we live in, and opened the heavens to see another way, another path, a new and brighter light, a light of hope, a hope that does not disappoint us.
Let us enter this holy week, dear friends, let us open our hearts to God, knowing that whatever you are facing, Jesus has been there first, and is with you now, with your sorrows… in the garden of desperate prayers, in the city of confrontation with power, at the table of broken relationships, in the lonely walk of facing death. Jesus is there, giving us strength, giving us courage, for our own journey toward Easter.
Let us walk the road of Holy Week with him, even as he walks with us.
[i] Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The Last Week (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 2006), 2.
[ii] John M. Buchanan, “To Stir a City,” sermon preached March 20, 2005, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 7.
[iii] Buchanan, 9.